UPDATE: NASCAR implements qualifying changes, admits errors

Photo by Harold Hinson Photography

By Caleb Whisler, Staff Writer

NASCAR announced changes Tuesday afternoon beginning this weekend at Dover International Speedway that will end the group qualifying format and return to single-car runs – something fans and broadcasters had both sought.

For all three NASCAR national series – Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, NASCAR Xfinity Series and the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series – qualifying will be single-vehicle and single-round format at all races, except for road courses. At ovals measuring 1.25-miles or less in length, qualifying will consist of two timed laps. Any track above the 1.25-mile length, qualifying will consist of one timed lap. Group qualifying will remain intact at road course events.

“Well, we’ve all seen how group qualifying evolved,” said Scott Miller, Sr. VP of Competition. “With the teams all waiting until the last minute, being allotted a block of time and only taking advantage of the last two or three minutes of it, it became problematic from a content standpoint, and also from a storytelling standpoint from the broadcaster and radio perspective and that. It was very hard to figure out who was doing what when it was only like a two-minute session.  A lot of times some of the pole-sitters weren’t covered very well because they were kind of surprise pole-sitters or whatnot.  That and just restoring general order.

“One of the things that was compelling to me about doing this as we talked to broadcasters was the fact that that ghost car technology has gotten really good. I think it’s going to be a pretty good story for them to tell, comparing each car to the fastest car that’s gone, being able to see who drove in deep, who rolled the middle fast, who got off the corner, all of those sorts of things. All of that kind of led to today’s announcement and the decision to go to single-car.”

The qualifying draw will be determined by the previous race’s starting lineup, he said. For example, the top 20 starters from the previous race will draw to take their qualifying lap in positions 21-40, which is in the latter part of the qualifying run. The cars below 20th will draw to for the rest of the starting spots and make their runs early. The idea is to give the best cars the chance to qualify later, Miller said.

“We need to make sure that a car stands a chance to win the pole is actually the last car out,” Miller said. “We think that typically everybody that qualifies in the top 20 in an event stands a chance of sitting on the pole in a subsequent event.  That was the pool we selected to come out of the draw of the last 20 spots to go. Also, rather than just going off of points or something, that gives every week some incentive for teams to qualify better and get in what is typically the draw that everybody wants to have, the later draw.”

Miller also didn’t want to “open up a can of worms” by basing qualifying positions on practice speeds because teams could cheat-up their cars by making them lighter or use other tricks to gain an advantage. Miller confirmed NASCAR does not check the weight of racecars during practice sessions. The new plan will make it more difficult to game the system, so to speak.

This move comes on the heels of criticism by drivers and the sanctioning body alike. At California earlier this year, not a single car registered a time during the final round of group qualifying because they all tried to wait to the very end of the session. Their hope was to get a good draft, manipulate who they were running with and take advantage of the latest run possible. It backfired with media and fans calling the situation, “an embarrassment.”

Miller said, he doesn’t think the drivers “won” but he understood why the teams weren’t concerned as much about the overall appearance of qualifying from a fan perspective.

“No, not really,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s as much of a driver-specific thing as it is a team-specific thing. We were probably asking a little much of them to not do everything that they could do from a competitive standpoint to make their position and their chances of qualifying well better. That’s what their job is.  We thought we could maybe put a few rules in and kind of get it to a place where it would work. That didn’t work out for us or for any of the fans and honestly for you all. I’m sure you don’t want to write about what was going on any more than we wanted it to happen. We just reacted to a situation. We’ll do that in the future. Whether it’s a driver issue, a team issue, or something that we’ve totally done wrong, we’ll always work to make things better.

“I don’t really think anybody’s at fault.  I think it’s something that we tried to try to provide a good show. We were optimistic. It didn’t work out. I think maybe we should have been more proactive. Maybe they should have given a little bit, whatever the case is.  I don’t think necessarily they’re to blame or we’re to blame.  It’s just we put something new out there with the rules package, and this didn’t work out for us.  That’s it. We tried to cooperate with them. They tried to cooperate a little bit.  But like I said before, they’re always going to default to what is best for their competitive position, and I don’t blame them for that. That’s kind of just where we are.”

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